Forbes has published a piece on BioLogos—the organization founded by Francis Collins whose aim is to bring evangelical Christians to evolution—that is so one-sided that it could easily have been a press release written by BioLogos itself. The piece is by science writer John Farrell (I can’t find much information about him), and is called “Evolution basics for people who hate it.” Farrell’s aim is to extol Evolution Basics, a series of essays by Dennis Venema at the BioLogos site. Venema is described as:
“Fellow of Biology for The BioLogos Foundation and associate professor of biology at Trinity Western University [TWU] in Langley, British Columbia. His research is focused on the genetics of pattern formation and signalling.”
“As an arm of the Church, to develop godly Christian leaders: positive, goal-oriented university graduates with thoroughly Christian minds; growing disciples of Christ who glorify God through fulfilling the Great Commission, serving God and people in the various marketplaces of life.”
Venema’s “research,” as described on his website, is thin: all of his papers after 2004, at least those given on his website c.v., are not research papers but discussions about education and reconciling science and Christianity.
But, to his credit, Venema has taken it upon himself to educate Christians about evolution and appears to have criticized intelligent design several times, including a critique of Stephen Meyer’s ID book Signature in the Cell. I’m sure the Discovery Institute didn’t like that one!
Forbes goes on to praise Venema’s series of lessons about evolution:
BioLogos, the brainchild of National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, often gets a bad rap. Creationists hate it because it not only accepts evolution, it does a great job of expounding on it and promoting it.
Some outspoken anti-religious scientists, on the other hand, can’t stand it because the organization openly attempts to reconcile an evangelical understanding of the Bible with modern science. And it tends to lean rightward on the political spectrum.
But that still leaves a lot of room for people in the middle. And they make up an ever growing audience.
Reaching that audience is Venema’s job. And he’s been at it since 2010, writing essays and tutorials for the foundation.
But he’s really hit his stride with Evolution Basics, written throughout the course of this year.
Evolution Basics is a multipart series whose posts have been going up for about a year, and it’s not bad. I could carp about a few things (for example, the salamander Ensatina is no longer considered a good example of a ring species), but on the whole it’s a good effort and well intended. I suppose BioLogos wouldn’t refer readers to either my book or Richard Dawkins’s on the same topic because, to evangelical Christians, we may as well have “666” branded on our foreheads.
So I have no problem with Venema’s attempt to education Christians about evolution. My problem lies elsewhere. First, there’s the cognitive dissonance of BioLogos itself, which presents Venema’s science-oriented essays on the same site as a statement of “What We Believe” that includes the following:
- We believe the Bible is the inspired and authoritative word of God. By the Holy Spirit it is the “living and active” means through which God speaks to the church today, bearing witness to God’s Son, Jesus, as the divine Logos, or Word of God.
- We believe that God also reveals himself in and through the natural world he created, which displays his glory, eternal power, and divine nature. Properly interpreted, Scripture and nature are complementary and faithful witnesses to their common Author.
- We believe that all people have sinned against God and are in need of salvation.
- We believe in the historical incarnation of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man. We believe in the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, by which we are saved and reconciled to God.
- We believe that God is directly involved in the lives of people today through acts of redemption, personal transformation, and answers to prayer.
- We believe that God typically sustains the world using faithful, consistent processes that humans describe as “natural laws.” Yet we also affirm that God works outside of natural law in supernatural events, including the miracles described in Scripture. In both natural and supernatural ways, God continues to be directly involved in creation and in human history.
9. We believe that the diversity and interrelation of all life on earth are best explained by the God-ordained process of evolution with common descent. Thus, evolution is not in opposition to God, but a means by which God providentially achieves his purposes. Therefore, we reject ideologies that claim that evolution is a purposeless process or that evolution replaces God.
How can you rely on evidence on one part of your site, and then completely reject that reliance on another, avowing belief in completely unsubstantiated claims? Further, BioLogos’s avowed respect for science is completely abandoned in point 9, which not only accepts theistic evolution, guided by God to a certain end, but completely rejects the notion that evolution is “purposeless.” For it is indeed purposeless in any meaningful sense, since evolution is, if anything, a materialistic process, not pushed in any particular direction (i.e. toward humans). If you abandon materialism in favor of “purpose,” then you’ve left science behind.
Much as I admire Venema’s desire to educate Christians about evolution, he’s on a fool’s errand (nb: I am not calling Venema a fool!), given that other parts of the BioLogos site (and presumably Venema himself) show unwavering belief in the divinity of Jesus, his Resurrection, and the sinfulness of humans, who can be saved only by belief in said Jesus. What I’d like to ask Venema (besides “how do you know that?) is this: “What about the Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists? Are we, the unsaved ones, going to hell?”
Second, both Venema and Forbes claim that the BioLogos mission is having great success, despite petulant people like me who argue that their strategy is misguided:
Is the message reaching a receptive audience? Venema believes it is, in spite of the skepticism of scientist bloggers [sic] like University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, who has made BioLogos a regular target.
“Even in the time since I’ve joined BioLogos,” said Venema, “I’ve seen a shift in my circles with more and more people being open to the idea that God used evolution as a creative mechanism, and that mainstream science is the proper place to find out more about that mechanism. The trend is positive.
“Coyne on the other hand is sure that BioLogos is a flop – he seems to write about it every few months or so – because he hasn’t seen a massive swing in opinion in the short term. You’d think an evolutionary biologist would be better placed to understand gradual change over time in a population. To put it in biological terms, ‘Evolutionary Creationism’ is a relatively new allele in the evangelical population, but it is rapidly increasing in frequency from my perspective. It’s also relatively common for BioLogos to be invited to panel-type presentations where our view is now accepted as one of the live options for an evangelical. That’s light years ahead of the situation when I was a child, when even hearing ‘evolution’ or ‘Darwin’ was like hearing someone swear.
What we have here is simply wish-thinking, like Christianity itself. Where is the evidence of the rapid increase in frequency of the “evolution allele” among evangelical Christians? There simply isn’t any, save Venema’s assertion that BioLogos is invited to panels of evangelical Christians. In point of fact, acceptance of evolution in America has remained fairly flat (with a slight uptick in both young-earth creationism and naturalistic evolution, and a downturn in BioLogos’s preferred process—theistic evolution—over the last five years.
As for the sea change among evangelical Protestants, well, it’s so slow as to be undiscernible. In 2007, a Pew survey showed that 24% of that group agreed that evolution was the best explanation of life on earth. In 2013, six years later, 27% agreed that “humans evolved over time.” Granted, those aren’t the same questions, but the percentages are within the margin of error for both polls. In other words, there’s not much evidence for a rapid increase in frequency of the “evolution allele: among evangelicals. I will accept the possibility of gradual change over time, but I require evidence, not the wish-thinking of BioLogos (after all, could they really say that what they were doing wasn’t working?) or the thin anecdotes of Venema.
But don’t take my word for it; see what Karl Giberson, who used to be the executive vice-president of BioLogos, wrote in a piece at The Daily Beast called “2013 was a terrible year for evolution” (see my post on this):
. . . scientifically informed young evangelicals became so alienated from their home churches that they walked away, taking their enlightenment with them.
An alarming study by the Barna group looked at the mass exodus of 20-somethings from evangelicalism and discovered that one of the major sources of discontent was the perception that “Christianity was antagonistic to science.” Anti-evolution, and general suspicion of science, has become such a significant part of the evangelical identity that many people feel compelled to choose one or the other. Many of my most talented former students no longer attend any church, and some have completely abandoned their faith traditions.
You won’t find any of Venema’s optimism in Giberson, whose piece is permeated with disillusionment about the willingness of evangelical Christians to accept evolution. (I suspect, in fact, that Giberson left BioLogos because he was stymied in his own attempts to promote evolution at the expense of antiscientific evangelical beliefs like the historicity of Adam and Eve.)
And against Giberson’s experience (and the data!) showing that young evangelicals perceive Christianity as antagonistic to science, we have the pure assertions of Venema as filtered through author Farrell:
It’s not surprising, for Venema, that any group that claims robust evangelical faith is perfectly compatible with a deep appreciation for science would receive criticism from both sides.
“One of the things I love about working with BioLogos is seeing individuals freed from this false dichotomy of choosing between science and faith.”
The problem with people like Venema and Farrell is that they see the dichotomy of false, but many, many people don’t, including 23% of Catholics, who remain young-earth creationists in opposition to official church dogma. After all, there is a real dichotomy between believing things based on evidence and believing them because they’re asserted in ancient works of fiction, or because they make you feel good.